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Tolling Points

Orlando's Tech Hub Delivers Breakthrough Results for Autonomous Vehicles

By: 
Bill Cramer

In a recent post for Forbes magazine, the Orlando Economic Partnership explains how the city that just hosted IBTTA’s Annual Technology Forum has placed itself at the center of the push to develop autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The post traces a multi-year innovation path that will culminate this spring when Orlando opens SunTrax, a 400-acre test facility and proving ground for some of the key technologies to bring AVs from the margins to the mainstream. The site, located off Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa, was developed as a joint venture between Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, Florida Polytechnic University, and a host of industry partners.

The 2.2-mile oval track will be used to test toll equipment, as well as connected and autonomous vehicle technologies for Vehicle-to-Infrastructure, Vehicle-to-Vehicle, and Vehicle-to-everything communications, the Florida Department of Transportation explains. Its simulated transportation environments will include central business districts, large arterial roads, rural roads, large, complex intersections, and different types of pavement and pavement markings.

Ideas at the Cutting Edge

The path to a top-tier AV innovation hub began in 2011 with the formation of the Central Florida AV Partnership, an alliance of city and state agencies, NASA, universities, and the plethora of industries that had already begun clustering in the area. Fast forward to today, and “politicians have made it clear that AV testing, development and deployment are welcome activities in Florida,” the Economic Partnership notes. “State law now permits the testing and operating of AVs on public roads, with or without a human driver in the vehicle.”

“Orlando is one of the hottest places in the world for cutting-edge tech development like this,” said Scott Faris, Chief Business Officer at Luminar Technologies, a company that is developing a key component of an eventual AV system. “Everybody is in alignment here about making Florida a leader and then maintaining that leadership in the evolution of transportation to autonomous vehicles.”

The shining objective that makes AVs such an irresistible draw for highway operators and users is the promise of multiple, simultaneous breakthroughs in highway safety, congestion relief, air quality, and emissions reduction. But to actually replace human drivers, the vehicles will have to be demonstrably safer than the ones on the roads today.

As just one example of the work SunTrax will support, Orlando turned out to be the perfect place to test Luminar’s plan for improving lidar technology already in use by the military, meteorologists, and other specialized operations that would be too expensive and bulky to deploy on the highway.  “It’s like the Silicon Valley of lidar,” Faris said. “The density of folks here that understand things like lasers and computer modeling is higher than certainly anywhere else in North America, and maybe even the world.”

New Technology Meets Consumer Demand

While Orlando is certainly attuned to the jobs and other economic benefits of a major innovation hub, officials also see a synergy between a state-of-the-art facility and the transportation needs of a large and varied user base, combining locals with a steady stream of tourists.

“Florida is a unique opportunity for deploying this tech in that we have all of these planned communities that are, and will continue to be, built,” said Rahul Razdan, senior director of special projects at Florida Polytechnic University. “We have a friendly regulatory environment here and an expanding need for AVs to fix some of the transportation problems that go along with our huge population growth.”

The region has seniors who can benefit from autonomous technology and 72 million tourists who visit each year, the world’s biggest rental car market and a constant motivation to improve the visitor experience. All of those roads lead back to autonomous vehicle technology.

“Everybody is in alignment here about making Florida a leader and then maintaining that leadership in the evolution of transportation to autonomous vehicles,” Faris said. “I’ve been surprised and excited about how much people are coming together around this.”

If you missed IBTTA’s Annual Technology Summit in Orlando, please click here to view the presentations.

 

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